Monday, March 29, 2010

The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod: Eighth Grade Bites - Heather Brewer

Title: The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod: Eighth Grade Bites (Book 1)
Author: Heather Brewer
Publisher: Speak, 2008 (Paperback)
Length: 182 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: March 24, 2010
Finished: March 28, 2010

Junior high really sucks for thirteen-year-old Vladimir Tod. Bullies harass him, the principal is dogging him, and the girl he likes prefers his best friend. Oh, and Vlad has a secret: his mother was human, but his father was a vampire. With no idea of the extent of his powers, Vlad struggles daily with his blood cravings and his enlarged fangs. When a substitute teacher begins to question him a little too closely, Vlad worries that his cover is about to be blown. But then he faces a much bigger problem: he’s being hunted by a vampire killer.

Here is a book that can finally give boys a piece of the recent vampire resurgence. Like my husband says, "what happened to when vampies made you go 'AHHHHHHHH!" instead of "Awwwwwwww!" All the vampire romance books lately have made the fad very much a girl thing, but here is a series that actually stars a male vampire that isn't being fawned over by a billion girls. The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod is a series that begins in Vlad's Grade 8 year and continues with one book per school year, ala Harry Potter (the series is up to Grade 11, so Book 4). Vlad is half human, half vampire that's trying to deal with the death of his parents (vampire dad, human mom), as well as keeping his vampire nature a secret. Helping him is his guardian, Aunt Nelly, and his best friend Harry, who helps Vlad despite being bitten by him when they were eight. Everything is as normal as can be for Vlad until his teacher goes missing and a substitute is brought in, one who starts asking questions and is on the verge of discovering Vlad's secret.

The book is a really quick read, I would have finished it in one sitting if I wasn't reading a few other books at the same time. The plot moves quite quickly with no real slow spots, in fact, if you skim or skip a paragraph or two, you'll miss key information. It's not the greatest piece of literature ever written, but it's really fun, and you can't help but love Vlad as a character, he's very witty.

If you're sick of the newfangled girl-friendly version of vampires and just want to read something where vampires are actually dangerous, or if you're looking for a quick, fun read, read this!

Thoughts on the cover:
All the covers are very similar: white background with a black silhouetted Vlad with a different coloured smiley face with fangs on his shirt, I love the continuity among them all. My favourite part has to be the smiley face with fangs, it's uber cute and just makes me giggle.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Alice I Have Been - Melanie Benjamin

Title: Alice I Have Been
Author: Melanie Benjamin
Publisher: Delacorte Press, 2010 (Hardcover)
Length: 345 pages
Genre: Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: March 25, 2010
Finished: March 26, 2010

From the author's website:
Few works of literature are as universally beloved as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Now, in this spellbinding historical novel, we meet the young girl whose bright spirit sent her on an unforgettable trip down the rabbit hole-and the grown woman whose story is no less enthralling.

But oh my dear, I am tired of being Alice in Wonderland. Does it sound ungrateful?

Alice Liddell Hargreaves's life has been a richly woven tapestry: As a young woman, wife, mother, and widow, she's experienced intense passion, great privilege, and greater tragedy. But as she nears her eighty-first birthday, she knows that, to the world around her, she is and will always be only "Alice."

That story, a wild tale of rabbits, queens, and a precocious young child, becomes a sensation the world over. Its author, a shy, stuttering Oxford professor, does more than immortalize Alice—he changes her life forever. But even he cannot stop time, as much as he might like to. And as Alice's childhood slips away, a peacetime of glittering balls and royal romances gives way to the urgent tide of war.

For Alice, the stakes could not be higher, for she is the mother of three grown sons, soldiers all. Yet even as she stands to lose everything she treasures, one part of her will always be the determined, undaunted Alice of the story, who discovered that life beyond the rabbit hole was an astonishing journey.

A love story and a literary mystery, Alice I Have Been brilliantly blends fact and fiction to capture the passionate spirit of a woman who was truly worthy of her fictional alter ego, in a world as captivating as the Wonderland only she could inspire.

I have to admit I'm a sucker for Alice in Wonderland, it was one of my favourite stories as a kid. I also love the history behind the author and his inspiration for Alice, the real-life Alice Liddell, so picking this up was a no-brainer. Alice I Have Been is an historical fiction novel that tells the known facts of Alice Liddell's life and the author fills in the unknown portions with her own ideas. Anyone familiar with the history of Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson knows that one of his hobbies was taking photographs of young girls. Granted, perceptions and ideals change through time, so though we today might think his photos are provocative and verging on pedophilia, the Victorians had different ideas about what was tasteful and what crossed the line, so I can't judge something from over 150 years ago using the moral lens of today. But regardless, most people tend to think the relationship between the girl and the man crossed some lines, which is the same view the author takes. She begins with Alice Liddell's at the ages of 7-11 in Oxford and continues with her as a woman in her twenties, then her fifties, and lastly, her eighties. The first part on Alice's early childhood was actually difficult to read at times because it smacks of pedophilia. Though nothing actually happens, there's subtle things that leave little to the imagination. And the whole scene where Dodgson is taking the picture of Alice as the gypsy girl almost made me put the book down because it really led my mind into the gutter. Again, nothing actually happens in the novel; if the author makes Dodgson out to be a pedophile, he's a repressed one. The later sections of the book that deal with Alice's love for Prince Leopold and eventually her family life with her husband and sons are wonderful parts that show Alice trying to live beyond what Dodgson immortalized her as in Alice in Wonderland. She is also haunted by the circumstances that caused the sudden break between Dodgson and the Liddell family when she was 11. The author hints at what happened, but it isn't until the very end where Alice admits what happened and why it followed her throughout her life.

Annnnnd I'm going to spoil it so if you plan to read the book skip the next few sentences.

Alice admits that she herself kissed Dodgson when she was 11 because she thought herself a woman and loved how much power she knew she had over Dodgson. Okay. Number 1, I find it very hard to believe that an 11-year-old girl would kiss a grown man on the lips today, let alone in sexually-repressed Victorian times. Keep in mind, no historical record exists of anything happening, so this is purely author speculation. I don't know, it just seems like a big stretch to me, I'd just rather think that Alice's parents finally realized his interests in their daughters weren't exactly normal and cut all ties before anything scandalous happened. Aside from my issues with the first part of the book, the rest is wonderful, and the struggle that Alice goes through to come to terms with all that's happened in her life and move on is what takes precedence.

Again, kinda icky for the whole suggestive pedophilia thing, but if you can stomach that, the rest of the story is quite engrossing.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the shades of blue with the gold accents, and especially the addition of the inset images of Alice and the White Rabbit.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Twelve Kingdoms: Skies of Dawn - Fuyumi Ono

Title: The Twelve Kingdoms: Skies of Dawn (Fourth in The Twelve Kingdoms series)
Author: Fuyumi Ono
Publisher: Tokyopop, 2010 (Hardcover)
Length: 642 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult: Fantasy
Started:March 23, 2010
Finished: March 25, 2010

From the publisher's website:
After a year of depending on her ministers to govern the kingdom of Kei, Yoko follows Keiki's advice and descends the mountain to live among her people, eager to learn how to be a better leader from the village’s wise-man, Enho. However, when Enho is kidnapped, Yoko finds herself thrust into an all-out war between the kingdoms. Friendships and alliances are put to the test during the Battle of Wa Province. Can Yoko summon the strength to take up her responsibilities as king?

Since very few people are familiar with this series aside from myself and my highly geeky friends, I'll give you the crash course on The Twelve Kingdoms. A series of novels originally published in Japanese, The Twelve Kingdoms is high fantasy that bridges the gap between young adult and adult readers (in Japan, the distinction between young adult and adult anything is slightly blurred since adults enjoy things made for kids and vice versa). The novels inspired an animated series of the same name, which was released in North America before the novels were licensed for distribution in English.

The Twelve Kingdoms begins in modern Japan with a 16-year-old girl named Yoko, who discovers the existence of another world parallel to ours that's set up like medieval China where the kings and queens of the kingdoms are chosen by heaven-sent human/horse hybrids and where babies grow on trees. No kidding. Keiki, the Kirin (heaven-sent human/horse) of the Kingdom of Kei brings Yoko to the world of the Twelve Kingdoms and tells her she is the queen of Kei and that she must assume the throne or her people will continue to suffer the calamities that happen when a ruler's throne is left vacant. After many battles to rightfully claim the throne from a false-queen, as well as fighting with herself over whether she believes she can do what's asked of her, Yoko becomes Queen Kei and with Keiki as her advisor they begin to rebuild the kingdom. The first novel deals strictly with this plotline, the second and third installments deal with secondary characters and plots that are part of the bigger world of The Twelve Kingdoms. The fourth novel, Skies of Dawn, deals with corruption among the ministers in the kingdom of Kei and how Yoko goes about proving her authority and gaining the respect of her court and her people.

This series is amazing, but it's not something you can just pick up in the middle of the series and immediately know what's going on, you really need to start with the first book (Sea of Shadow) and go from there. The world-building is unlike anything I have ever seen in any book, movie, you name it. This series may as well have a glossary the size of a small dictionary with all the terminology unique to it, but once you read the first book that explains everything, you're pretty much set. The stories are engaging, very creative, but are also very heavy on politics (which is why I say it's less of a young adult book even though the protagonist is a teenager), so if you can't follow a political plot line, these might not be for you.

The only complain I have with this volume in particular is that there are several errors that I caught throughout (grammatical, spelling, continuity) that I don't think were present in the previous volumes. I don't know if they will be corrected upon further printings, but it was annoying having to go back a few sentences and having to correct things in my head when I realized they referred to a character by a completely different name and being confused by who was really in what scene. Aside from the editorial errors though, the translation's very well done on all the books, and it's not hard to understand (once you know the terminology of the series). I highly recommend watching the animated series in conjunction to reading the books, it really helps to put things in perspective and visualizing certain events. I watched the entire series a couple years before the books were released starting in 2007 (one book per year), and I usually go back to the episodes that relate to that particular book and watch them after I've read the book just because it helps put things together in my head. The series can get a little complicated sometimes and watching it visually always helps me with that.

If you're looking for something fresh in a fantasy series, give this a try. Remember to start with volume 1 (Sea of Shadow) if you've never read these before. Though the English release is targeted for young adults, the material itself is decidedly more adult than what most of our youth are used to in their novels, not in the inappropriate sex/vulgar manner, but with it's violence, open-ended questions on morality, and politics. Now that I think about it, there's no sexual content at all in these books (not even a romance sub-plot). I would probably recommend this for a much older teenager and adult readers.

Thoughts on the cover:
Good continuity for the covers so far. The covers for all the books are done with bright turquoise and orange-red colour schemes with the image for the volume integrated in similar shades of those colours so that only skin tone and hair colour really stand out in the image.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Incarceron - Catherine Fisher

Title: Incarceron
Author: Catherine Fisher
Publisher: Dial Books, 2010 (Hardcover)
Length: 442 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy, Dystopian Fiction
Started: March 18, 2010
Finished: March 22, 2010

Incarceron -- a futuristic prison, sealed from view, where the descendants of the original prisoners live in a dark world torn by rivalry and savagery. It is a terrifying mix of high technology -- a living building which pervades the novel as an ever-watchful, ever-vengeful character, and a typical medieval torture chamber -- chains, great halls, dungeons. A young prisoner, Finn, has haunting visions of an earlier life, and cannot believe he was born here and has always been here. In the outer world, Claudia, daughter of the Warden of Incarceron, is trapped in her own form of prison -- a futuristic world constructed beautifully to look like a past era, an imminent marriage she dreads. She knows nothing of Incarceron, except that it exists. But there comes a moment when Finn, inside Incarceron, and Claudia, outside, simultaneously find a device -- a crystal key, through which they can talk to each other. And so the plan for Finn's escape is born ...

The concept and world-building in this novel is massive. Incarceron is a prison that encompasses cities, forests, wastelands, it is literally it's own world. Outside Incarceron, Time has stopped, meaning that progress has stopped. Claudia and the rest of the people at court parade around in 19th century clothing while secretly holding onto insanely wonderful technologies that they aren't supposed to use (they aren't even supposed to use washing machines). Finn is inside Incarceron and can only remember waking up inside it a few years previous, which makes him think he grew up Outside. While each of them works through both their problems (Finn simply surviving, Claudia with an arranged marriage she hates), both find crystal keys that enable Claudia to talk to Finn and vice versa. Then Claudia believes she knows who Finn really is. And if she's right, then collaborating with each other will solve both their problems.

It took me awhile to really get into this book because it is a little slow to build up, but once you're into it you just want to plow through to the end. I loved that the author made Incarceron like a character, the prison actually talks and is a living entity, it made it all that more creepy. I would have liked a little more background info on how things got to the way they were in the start of the novel, and some of the secondary characters fall flat, but the plot itself, as well as the main characters, are wonderfully written. There is a sequel, called "Sapphique", so hopefully some of my issues with background info will be addressed in the continuation.

This is one of those immensely creative books that you have to read simply because it's different. I mean c'mon, a living prison, that's gotta be worth a read.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love how the colours give everything a tarnished metallic look to them, and that the image of the key is shiny (I like shiny covers). Much improved over the original UK cover, I think (probably one of the few times I prefer the US cover art).

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Sunday Salon - So this is what teaching's been reduced to?

The Sunday

Here in Ontario, our students have to pass a special literacy test in order to graduate from high school (they take it in Grade 10). Called the OSSLT (Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test), it tests concepts based on literacy expectations students should have learned up to Grade 9, so 9 years worth of English literacy skills. I've seen past tests and even administered sample ones to classes I've had, and to be honest, it's not that difficult, the material on the tests is no different from my academic English exams when I was in high school 10 years ago. Here is some information on what the test entails for those who are not familiar:

Even with the realistic expectations (we're not asking for kids to write essays, just multiple choice and short answer questions and reading passages) and a mountain of prep work, kids still fail the OSSLT. In my school board alone, there's about a 15% failure rate. Before you ask, some students are exempt form the test depending on disabilities (case by case basis), and any students who require accommodations are looked after in that regard. So the reason why they are failing is that they don't know the material. Now I won't get into my whole rant about standardized tests, but this is one test I actually agree with, I actually think kids should need to take a test like this to graduate from elementary school (with modified material appropriate for a higher elementary level). Since I began working in the publicly funded education system here in Ontario, I have noticed that even in dealing with the same caliber of classes that I took in high school (academic/honours) the quality of work and what the kids know has gone down. In the same level of class, the kids don't know how to write essays, they don't know how to reference properly, their vocabulary has even decreased. Almost every teacher my age (so was in the high school system 10 years ago), agrees with me. University professors have been saying for a few years now that their first-year students have been coming into the schools unprepared, can't write essays, use MSN speak on their papers etc. We could argue how either teachers aren't doing their job, kids aren't internalizing what they're being taught, parents aren't reinforcing concepts at home, or any number of things as to why our expectations of students have gotten so low, but I am getting to a point with all my rambling.

The other day, I came upon this in the paper:

And I kinda laughed. Then I actually visited the website and did the activities.

Read Write Rock

Now the site does manage to get the basic concepts taught in a fun way that appeals to teenagers, I'll give it that. But what's taught on this website gearing students towards practicing for the literacy test is no different than what they would learn sitting in a classroom listening to their English teacher, half of the lesson sections feel like they came out of the mouth of my grade 10 English teacher. Some teachers even make activities just as fun as what's on the website. Aside from my issue with the overload of slang used by the rocker characters on the website (which we discourage students from using in formal writing), the website only really helps with questions it can easily mark, like the multiple choice in the reading section. The writing section of the website, where students have to write a short paragraph, opinion piece, news article etc., can only provide examples and a checklist to ensure that the kids are doing the exercise correctly, compared to what would normally be done in class by handing in a writing sample and it being marked and taken up by a teacher. So although I think it's a great idea for the reading section and to appeal to kids generally for those that really need the push, altogether kids still need those key concepts reinforced by constant practice in a classroom and reading for pleasure (I still think our kids would exhibit better literacy skills if, you know, more of them would actually all). It's just amazing what teachers have to sink to in order to teach perfectly basic things to kids, things generations of us learned without access to the internet (myself included). So at some point perhaps we have to admit that it doesn't really matter what the teachers do or don't do, kids aren't learning these things in schools. If we learned them 10 years ago in huge classes (can't use the class size argument there), with the same teachers (can't use the improperly trained teachers argument there), without any technological interaction (can't use the kids need more interactive activities argument), then what the heck are we doing wrong? Why are kids failing to learn the same basic skills we learned only 10 years ago using the same teachers and a heck of a lot more resources and technology than what we were given?

I honestly don't know. I'm convinced it's because kids don't read enough or actually reinforce literacy concepts outside of school, call me crazy. When I was in elementary school, more of the boys in my classes read books than what I see in elementary schools today (and I mean really want to read them, not just because they're made to), and I went to a middle-class school where there was an equal mix of blue and white-collar families. More of the families cared about education and actually scheduled their vacations around when the school breaks were so that their kids wouldn't miss any class time for something as silly as a vacation. More of the families would take action if their kid brought home consistently poor grades, although not by using a tutor (none of us had tutors), but by hard work and parental involvement. When I had poor grades in grade 5 math, my father quizzed me every night when he got home from work (and he worked long hours being self-employed, but he still did it), and through a lot of hard work my grades improved. Nowadays kids certainly don't take responsibility for their work (which teaching about a good work ethic would've avoided but I won't get into that), but parents don't either. And if parents don't care and don't intervene to make sure kids get the work done, then teachers can't do much more. Teachers can only do so much, remember, parents wanted teachers to have less power over students but wanted them to be responsible for doing more? When parents teach their kids about having a good work ethic, about doing their work, spend time with their kids, read to them, take them to the library to read books, amazingly, those are the kids who are better students, no matter what income level they come from. When parents let technology babysit, make other people responsible for their kids, don't enforce that schoolwork gets done, and don't set a good example, those are the kids that fail in so many areas of life (and I'm not taking just academically), and teachers can only fix so much.

So yes, that's how one little website is endemic of what's happening in society as a whole.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Awesome surprise in the mail!

This will require some explaining.

Back in February, I read a post on Carrie Ryan's blog (author of The Forest of Hands and Teeth and The Dead-Tossed Waves, both of which I have reviewed). Here is the post from her blog:

Since I was going to pick up the book on the release date (but ended up getting it earlier, so lucky!) and didn't feel like waiting for it to ship from the states, I decided to send off for a bookplate. I wrote her a note telling her how much I and my class loved the book and how I couldn't wait for the sequel (I sent this off in February before the second book had come out). I didn't even know if she would send anything Canada way (cause we always get the short end of the stick in things like that), so I wasn't expecting anything to come of it, but I got the mail today and received this! Click on the pic to see a more detailed look. She sent the bookplate as I originally requested, but she also sent a little note thanking me for my original note, as well as some bookmarks with images from the covers of The Forest of Hands and Teeth and The Dead-Tossed Waves, and some cool little "Eat. Prey. Love." stickers (the phrase of the new marketing campaign for her books).

This is really awesome, especially since I wasn't expecting it. I think I might save the bookplate until the third book comes out and decide which of the three to put it in. Carrie Ryan was already one of my favourite YA authors simply for writing amazing books, but this makes her go up a notch in my opinion. So if you're reading this, thank you Carrie Ryan for making my day! If anyone reading my blog likes her books, or if you haven't and would like to read an intelligently written series that deals with zombies (first read the books), then mail a request for an autographed copy or a bookplate off to the author using the information in the blog post I linked to above.

Liar - Justine Larbalestier

Title: Liar
Author: Justine Larbalestier
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2009 (Hardcover)
Length: 371 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: March 16, 2010
Finished: March 18, 2010

Micah will freely admit that she’s a compulsive liar, but that may be the one honest thing she’ll ever tell you. Over the years she’s duped her classmates, her teachers, and even her parents, and she’s always managed to stay one step ahead of her lies. That is, until her boyfriend dies under brutal circumstances and her dishonesty begins to catch up with her. But is it possible to tell the truth when lying comes as naturally as breathing? Taking readers deep into the psyche of a young woman who will say just about anything to convince them—and herself—that she’s finally come clean, Liar is a bone-chilling thriller that will have readers see-sawing between truths and lies right up to the end. Honestly.

When I picked this up to read, I wasn't sure what I was getting into. By the end, I had a book that messes with your head and essentially makes you question every single thing written. The narrator, Micah, is a compulsive liar, she admits this early on. She promises to tell the readers the truth of what happened beginning with the disappearance and death of her boyfriend. There are a few things that Micah tells you about herself that you're pretty sure are true: that she's black, that she goes to school in New York City on a partial scholarship, that her family doesn't have that much money, and that she lies a lot. As soon as Micah mentions that she lied about this one thing she told readers a couple pages back, you start to question everything she says. It was hard to read this because as readers, you're so used to trusting your narrator in terms of getting at least one true viewpoint of the story (if done in first person), you can trust it more in third person, but first person is often more engaging to read in my opinion. With Micah outrightly lying, and by the time part 2 of the novel comes around and the twist is revealed and you're really sure she's lying but you oh so want to believe her, you're just trying to piece together what really happened. Micah is such a good liar too, all her lies are plausible, though not necessarily realistic. The ending doesn't have Micah saying, "oh okay guys, sorry, this is what really happened," and even if it did, I still don't think I'd believe her. This is a wonderful book just for that, you're not really sure what went on and every person will have a different idea of whether Micah's completely lying, completely truthful, or a mix of the two. It's hard to describe what my feelings about the book are without seriously spoiling it and influencing someone's opinion of it, so you'll just have to read it and decide for yourselves.

If you love reading a book where you can't completely trust your narrator and she occasionally makes fun of you for wanting to believe her, read this! Read this anyway because it's simply different from most of the stuff people read.

Thoughts on the cover:
There was a whole "whitewashing" incident with this book where the initial cover put forth by the publishers showed a white girl instead of a black girl. If they're going to put an image of the main character on the book cover, it should at least look like how she's described, which thankfully, the final released cover does. Aside from that issue, I like how the girl's mouth is covered with whatever it is she's holding.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Maze Runner - James Dashner

Title: The Maze Runner
Author: James Dashner
Publisher: Delacorte Press, 2009 (Hardcover)
Length: 374 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Dystopian Fiction
Started: March 12, 2010
Finished: March 16, 2010

From the book's website:
When Thomas wakes up in the lift, the only thing he can remember is his first name. His memory is blank. But he’s not alone. When the lift’s doors open, Thomas finds himself surrounded by kids who welcome him to the Glade—a large, open expanse surrounded by stone walls.

Just like Thomas, the Gladers don’t know why or how they got to the Glade. All they know is that every morning the stone doors to the maze that surrounds them have opened. Every night they’ve closed tight. And every 30 days a new boy has been delivered in the lift.

Thomas was expected. But the next day, a girl is sent up—the first girl to ever arrive in the Glade. And more surprising yet is the message she delivers.

Thomas might be more important than he could ever guess. If only he could unlock the dark secrets buried within his mind.

I love, love, love this book. It's similar to The Hunger Games but with different elements that still make it an incredible read. It instantly reminded me of Lord of the Flies, except without the whole "without order people turn into animals" bit, cause there's an awful lot of order in the Glade. Thomas wakes up in a giant elevator knowing only his name, when the elevator opens in the Glade, he's surrounded by a large group of teenage boys that slowly tell him of life surrounded by the Maze. All the boys can figure out is that they were put in the Maze to find their way out. Only problem is the Maze walls are a hundred feet high, they rotate and change during the night, and the Grievers come out at night...if you're stung by a Griever, you're never the same. After Thomas learns about how the boys' society works in the Glade, he decides he wants to be a Runner, the select few boys chosen to run through the Maze and map it's sections every day, looking for the exit. Then there's the problem of if they ever find the exit, do they want to return to the word that put them there?

The Maze Runner is a thriller, and an action-packed one at that. It's the first book of a series and it succeeds in a similar fashion to The Hunger Games where the main focus of the book is one thing while there's another even bigger problem looming in the background. The Maze Runner deals with a dystopian world where these boys are thrust into this environment but none of them know why or how to get out. It's easy enough to guess, and things are quickly revealed at the end of the novel, where things quickly progress to the main issue at hand, which presumably will occupy the second-and possibly third?-book. The Maze Runner is also different in that 99% of the characters are male, which no doubt will appeal to a lot of boys. Not that boys wouldn't like The Hunger Games simply because the main character is female, I've encountered lots of boys that do, just that there are some boys that simply cannot identify with a book if the main character is a girl. The Hunger Games also spends equal time explaining relationships between characters as well as on plot and action, whereas The Maze Runner is mostly plot and action. I know I keep comparing it to The Hunger Games, but I dare you to read both books and try really hard not to compare them.

I liked Thomas a lot, he was a very likable character in that he never got bogged down by circumstances and simply charged into things trying to improve the situation. I liked how the author even made up slang for the characters, though it took some getting used to trying to figure out what each word really meant. The suspense is insane, you as a reader truly don't know any more than the rest of the characters do, and you end up reading purely to find out what the heck's going on. I love how the novel ended, knowing it's supposed to continue and knowing more of where it's headed. Will definitely by buying this as well as the rest of the series (second book is due out in October 2010).

An excellent example of dystopian fiction. If you liked The Hunger Games, you gotta read this. Even if you haven't read The Hunger Games, read this!

Thoughts on the cover:
I like it, the cover art really gives you an idea of what the Maze looks like and what the boys are dealing with. You can see how the walls around the Glade can close at night (giant spikes into giant holes), and just how big they really are.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Flesh and Fire - Laura Anne Gilman

Title: Flesh and Fire
Author: Laura Anne Gilman
Publisher: Pocket Books, 2009 (Hardcover)
Length: 374 pages
Genre: Adult; Fantasy
Started: March 3, 2010
Finished: March 12, 2010

From the author's website:
Fourteen centuries ago, all power was held by the prince-mages, who alone could craft the spell-wines. But the people revolted against harsh rule, and were saved by a demigod called Sin-Washer, who broke the First Vine, shattering the hold of the prince-mages.

In 1378 ASW, princes still rule, but Vinearts now make spellwines, less powerful than in days of old. Jerzy, a young slave, has just begun his studies to become a Vineart when his master uncovers the first stirrings of a plot to finish the work Sin-Washer began, and shatter the remains of the Vine forever. Only his master believes the magnitude and danger of this plot. And only Jerzy has the ability to stop it…before there are no more Vinearts left at all.

When I heard this was a wine-based fantasy, I knew I had to check this out. Being Italian, the idea of "magic wine" just makes me want to giggle, but the world of this novel was amazingly well built. Jerzy is a slave in the Vineart Malech's land and is just another invisible worker until Malech notices Jerzy's innate magical talent and takes him on as an apprentice Vineart. I loved how all Vinearts take their apprentices from their slave population, the reason given because the hard life of slavery apparently brings the magical ability out in those who possess it. Jerzy and Malech are both great characters, Jerzy is young and wants nothing more than to please those who took him out of slavery, Malech is one of those older male characters who appears cold but is really nice beyond the surface. The process of growing the grapes and crafting the spellwines was really creative and actually made sense, you could tell the author actually put some thought into this and didn't pull it out of nowhere. I loved seeing Jerzy's training and time with Malech, however since this is the first of a series and Jerzy and company didn't take off to investigate the problem until the very end of the book, I wasn't fond of the fact that there was all this build-up with no resolution at all, but of course that is coming in Book 2.

If you're sick of your usual mage/dragon/sorcerer fantasy and want something unique, this is for you. There is mention of sexual abuse though, so a warning for people who are sensitive to that sort of stuff.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like it, but if that's supposed to be Jerzy on the front he looks older than he's supposed to be. He looks like he's in his 20s or 30s than a gangly 15-16-year-old kid.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Hold Still - Nina LaCour

Title: Hold Still
Author: Nina LaCour
Publisher: Dutton Books, 2009 (Hardcover)
Length: 229 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: March 7, 2010
Finished: March 8, 2010

dear caitlin, there are so many things that i want so badly to tell you but i just can’t.

Devastating, hopeful, hopeless, playful . . . in words and illustrations, Ingrid left behind a painful farewell in her journal for Caitlin. Now Caitlin is left alone, by loss and by choice, struggling to find renewed hope in the wake of her best friend’s suicide. With the help of family and newfound friends, Caitlin will encounter first love, broaden her horizons, and start to realize that true friendship didn’t die with Ingrid. And the journal which once seemed only to chronicle Ingrid’s descent into depression, becomes the tool by which Caitlin once again reaches out to all those who loved Ingrid—and Caitlin herself.

This is one of those books on difficult subjects that I wish I had when I was in high school. During my years in high school, we had a classmate commit suicide and a few others die of illnesses and accidents, so we were no strangers to the memorial assemblies and grief counselors in class. Amazing how the kids I teach now don't believe me when I tell them that a classmate will pass away during their years in high school. With most kids never attending a funeral until later in their lives, sometimes the first experience a kid will have with death is when someone from school passes away (either by accident, suicide, illness etc.). Most people have no idea how grief will affect them until they're thrust into a situation like this, and I think this book is wonderful if for nothing else than showing how Caitlin deals with her grief.

Ingrid commits suicide at the end of the school year, Caitlin's family spirits her away to a cabin for the summer in order to recover from the shock if Ingrid's death, so Caitlin doesn't really deal with her grief until school starts up again in September. Her photography teacher that she used to love now ignores her, she finds herself friendless without Ingrid, and avoids looking at herself in a mirror. Eventually, she finds Ingrid's journal underneath her bed and slowly reads through it, trying to understand the friend that she never even knew was sick and on anti-depressants. As time passes into winter and then spring, Caitlin reads through Ingrid's journal and her sketches and photographs and eventually starts to rebuild her life without Ingrid in it.

I love the little details in this book, like how Caitlin recites genetic trait facts to focus on something else when someone around her talks about Ingrid. When my grandmother died, I used to say the names and colours of flowers in my head to keep myself from crying at her funeral, so it amused me that someone other than me thought of this too. The photography element running through the book is interesting too, how Caitlin loses her passion for photography until she sees a series of pictures of herself that Ingrid took, and it invigorates her love of the hobby she and Ingrid shared. I like how they included the photography teacher as well, it shows readers that when someone you care about dies, it's not just you who's hurting, there could be people you've never even considered who might be hurting just as much if not more than you. It also shows that people grieve in different ways, and to try not to hold it against someone if they act out while in grief.

A wonderful novel about dealing with the death of someone you care about, especially when that death is from a suicide. I would definitely give this to an intermediate or high school class if I needed something dealing with that subject matter, but I'd be more hesitant about giving it to an intermediate class since there's a bit of swearing and sexual stuff that pops up every now and then, plus the mention of cutting and graphic detail about the suicide.

Thoughts on the cover:
Considering the whole photography theme that runs through the novel, I'd thought the cover would be more like a scrapbook or a showcase of photos or something along that vein. Though the inside covers keep with the journal theme with little drawings done in purple ink.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Dead-Tossed Waves - Carrie Ryan

Title: The Dead-Tossed Waves
Author: Carrie Ryan
Publisher: Delacorte Press, 2010 (Hardcover)
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Dystopian Fiction, Horror
Started: March 3, 2010
Finished: March 3, 2010

From inside cover:
Gabry lives a quiet life. As safe a life as is possible in a town trapped between a forest and the ocean, in a world teeming with the dead, who constantly hunger for those still living. She’s content on her side of the Barrier, happy to let her friends dream of the Dark City up the coast while she watches from the top of her lighthouse. But there are threats the Barrier cannot hold back. Threats like the secrets Gabry’s mother thought she left behind when she escaped from the Sisterhood and the Forest of Hands and Teeth. Like the cult of religious zealots who worship the dead. Like the stranger from the forest who seems to know Gabry. And suddenly, everything is changing. One reckless moment, and half of Gabry’s generation is dead, the other half imprisoned. Now Gabry only knows one thing: she must face the forest of her mother’s past in order to save herself and the one she loves.

I was out book-shopping last night and was looking for another book when I happened to notice this one on the shelves. Knowing that it's not supposed to be released for another week, and thanking the god of book stores that this one breaks street dates, I bought it and read it all today. Second in The Forest of Hands and Teeth series, this book is more of a companion to The Forest of Hands and Teeth than a sequel. The main character is 16-year-old Gabrielle ("Gabry"), Mary's daughter, so quite a lot of time has passed since the ending of the first book. Mary and Gabry live in the lighthouse at the edge of the town of Vista where Mary found herself at the end of the first book, and from what we learn from Gabry, the area they live in is rather safe from the Unconsecrated/Mudo, nobody has been infected for quite some time. This gives Gabry's friends the idea that they can cross the barriers that protect them and nothing will go wrong. Famous last words. After several of her friends are infected and die and the ones that live are punished harshly for their actions, Gabry must come to terms with her fear, her changing surroundings, and her past.

After reading this, I found that I much preferred the previous book, The Forest of Hands and Teeth. I think this is because both books take very different approaches to their stories. The first book dealt with Mary's desire to escape her village and find something beyond it and the Forest. It had a lot of action and most of the themes were directly portrayed by the characters and their actions rather than simply being talked about by the characters. That's where The Dead-Tossed Waves differs. It seems more of a book about ideas than a book about action. Not much actually happens in the first half of the book, it's not until the second half that Gabry and company actually venture away from Vista. Gabry has a lot of issues: she's afraid of everything that's not deemed safe, and once her friends are attacked she can't seem to come to terms with how her world has changed. Whereas The Forest of Hands and Teeth dealt with these issues quite quickly, The Dead-Tossed Waves takes half the book telling Gabry the same things: "don't be afraid, live your life, have hope". Because of the nature of Gabry and Mary and where they grew up, I almost think Gabry's story should have come first since she's the sheltered one and had to go through the trauma of seeing someone infected. Since we've already gone through that with Mary's story, Gabry and her issues just annoyed me a lot of the time, I wanted to smack her, tell her to suck it up, and just do what she had to do without being angsty all of the time.

Although I did like The Forest of Hands and Teeth better, the story in The Dead-Tossed Waves was still well written, very engrossing, and kept me reading, though I did guess the plot twist quite early on, I was kind of disappointed that I got it because I thought it would be more complicated. One thing I liked was that we get answers for things left unsaid in The Forest of Hands and Teeth, about the Return and what happened afterwards. There is still a third book left to complete the story arc, not quite sure when it's coming out though.

If you read The Forest of Hands and Teeth and liked it, reading this one is a no-brainer.

Thoughts on the cover:
I actually like the earlier concept art better than the one that actually appeared on the cover, I think it matched the first book well and kept the continuity of the covers. The girl on the actual cover doesn't really look like how Gabry's described, and she looks more like a Mudo washed up on the beach than Gabry. The original concept cover with the blue background I just seem to like better.

Chains - Laurie Halse Anderson

Title: Chains
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 2008 (Hardcover), 2010 (Paperback)
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Children's Historical Fiction
Started: March 1, 2010
Finished: March 1, 2010

If an entire nation could seek its freedom, why not a girl?
As the Revolutionary War begins, thirteen-year-old Isabel wages her own fight...for freedom. Promised freedom upon the death of their owner, she and her sister, Ruth, in a cruel twist of fate become the property of a malicious New York City couple, the Locktons, who have no sympathy for the American Revolution and even less for Ruth and Isabel. When Isabel meets Curzon, a slave with ties to the Patriots, he encourages her to spy on her owners, who know details of British plans for invasion. She is reluctant at first, but when the unthinkable happens to Ruth, Isabel realizes her loyalty is available to the bidder who can provide her with freedom.

From acclaimed author Laurie Halse Anderson comes this compelling, impeccably researched novel that shows the lengths we can go to cast off our chains, both physical and spiritual.

I am slowly getting to read all of the books this author has written, and I'm finding her historical fiction is just as good as her young adult novels. Chains is about slavery, but not slavery in the 1800s which is when most slavery stories tend to take place, but during the Revolutionary War (1776-1777). It reminds us that slavery was a British thing before it was an American thing, which is good to remember since we in Canada think our history was above all that barbaric stuff. The novel of course describes the life of child slaves Isabel and Ruth, but the main idea of this novel is the concept of freedom both for the Americans and the slaves. Americans wanted freedom from Britain but didn't offer it to their own slaves, Britain wasn't willing to give freedom to Americans but offered it to slaves from Patriot families who offered to serve the British. Isabel struggles with the idea of loyalty throughout the book and switches sides back and forth until she realizes that she can only be loyal to herself and the only person that can give her freedom is herself. It's a wonderfully written book, and Isabel's narration is well done. The continuation is coming out this fall and I can't wait to read it.

If you like well-written historical fantasy about a rarely discussed topic (slavery during this specific time period), then read this!

Thoughts on the cover:
I love it. I like the blue background and the almost burgundy tones they used for Isabel's skin. I love how her hands are positioned as if the title banner has her bound.